Teaching Integrity in High School English

Thomas Eakins, "Portrait of Walt Whitman"

As school begins for many around the country (but not at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where opening day has been pushed back a day because of Hurricane Irene), I am posting an essay written by one of this blog’s regular readers, English high school teacher Carl Rosin. Carl, who is English Department Chair at Radnor Township School District outside of Philadelphia, believes in learning in the deepest sense.  Each year at this time he determines to accomplish what may sound impossible: getting students to learn without feeling that education is an imposition. Put another way, he is out to transform them into life-long learners.

In the class described here, Carl opens with the American transcendentalists, who insisted that we live lives of integrity.  By the end of the course, his students are doing an assignment where must put all that they have thought and read into action. This is real learning, teaching at its finest.

By Carl Rosin, English Department Chair, Radnor Township

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room….

So begins Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” This eight-line poem from Leaves of Grass epitomizes – and symbolizes – the challenge of helping high schoolers experience the Transcendentalist era, American Literature, Literature, and scholarship as a whole.

I immediately realized the irony of “teaching” this poem. The mechanical acts, the passive verbs (even the active verbs depict passivity, as in the word “heard”), the repetition – all these things cast a traditional sense of being “learn’d” in a negative light. Thoreau and Emerson would have concurred, but Whitman evokes it best: the true scholar is the intrinsically motivated, active participant who shuns the conformists’ applause. Whitman continues with a more varied, active, non-conformist second half of the poem:

How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Nice. A whiff of that sometimes overwhelming Whitman Romanticism, but nice.

It seems that everywhere I look these days I find more concern about the epidemic of people Becoming Tired And Sick, and the commensurate interest in and difficulty of Searching For Happiness. Our economy and our society impose intimidating stressors, so self-help books flood the market. In recent years, Harvard’s most popular course has been Tal Ben-Shahar’s Positive Psychology. Martin Seligman and Sonja Lyubomirsky and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly intrigue us with their research. The business world boasts best-selling books and spellbinding TED Conference speeches about purpose and motivation, by folks like Dan Pink and Jane McGonigal. The Atlantic Monthly has reported on Happiness dozens of times in the past few years, including on this fascinating longitudinal study and, just last week, on “Maslow 2.0: A New and Improved Recipe for Happiness”. The list goes on.

The essence of what has inspired this interest, which our old non-conformist and early-adapter of Modernism (as Jonah Lehrer so impressively interpreted him) Walt Whitman would well have understood, seems to be the terrifying lack of control that has grown increasingly pervasive in the fractured, frenetic modern world.

Bring it into the microcosm of each American high school with its community of teenagers. That’s my world. Do many of these young Americans feel a creeping nihilism about the future? Fear about the vertiginous decline in college-acceptance rates? Pressure to pass mandated high-stakes state tests? Doubt that they’ll find good jobs? Yes, they do.

Even worse, too many talented, intelligent teenagers don’t report getting any real enjoyment out of learning. See how long you can talk to educators and so-called ed reformers without hearing someone drop the “life-long learner” buzzword. (Hint: not long.) This is important because life-long learners are not what our education system is good at helping to nurture, especially in an environment where even middle schoolers are already trapped in the much-hyped Race to Nowhere vortex, feeling the fear of their parents and peers and worrying about extremism at home and abroad.

As a teacher, I love Professor Bates’s adherence to the thesis that great literature holds great value for living. Not merely books, although I love and support reading – I’m talking about great literature. Some of this value is nurturing, some instructive, some creative and otherwise imaginative. And yet, when so many students see books as things merely to get to the end of, things to be able to answer a question or two about, there is no joy. Plato said it neatly in 360 B.C.E.: “Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.”

As a teacher, therefore, I give myself the pep talk every year: I will do my best to help students develop intrinsic motivation toward appreciating and even loving intellectual pursuits, including literature. I think I can, I say, I think I can. It’s important and may help them be happy someday. But the paradox remains; as Dr. George Vaillant said about his aforementioned longitudinal study, “If you encourage people to try to forgive someone, their blood pressure goes up.” So: can students be led to learn without feeling that education is what someone is imposing on them?

In a 2010 TED speech and follow-up book Reality is Broken, McGonigal, a video game designer, said, “We know that we are optimized, as human beings, to do hard meaningful work. And gamers are willing to work hard all the time, if they’re given the right work.” I’m not so naïve to assume that school naturally offers “the right work” to most American teenagers. McGonigal was talking about the intrinsic motivation lurking in video gaming; I’m talking about reading, writing, and thinking. Without repudiating McGonigal’s complex and alluring thesis about how we can make the world more like a video game, which deserves its own careful treatment, I point my attention at the Transcendentalists.

The Transcendentalism unit in my class presents a story about integrity. Everywhere in literature, we press our students to consider ethical dilemmas – How best for Hamlet to pursue retribution for his father’s murder? If society teaches Huck Finn that slaves are subhuman but his experience suggests otherwise, is it moral for him to treat Jim as a human being if it means breaking the law? We may not be in someone’s fictional story, but, as the Transcendentalists pointed out, we have very difficult decisions to make all the time, simply about how we choose to live our lives. “Whoso would be a man, must be a non-conformist,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Self-Reliance,” and also, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”

Yeah, yeah, all well and good. To high school juniors, and to me as well, this seems suspiciously like more mere verbiage. The purpose of school is to complete school, many believe – and honestly enough. This is what they have been shown, if not necessarily told; this is the essence of much of the feedback they have received from us teachers. My task as a teacher, I believe, revolves less around subjecting these kids to The Classics (Transcendentalists included) and more around helping guide them to a position where they care to learn The Classics, and then help deliver them that nourishment they have come to crave. I want them to figure out what it means to rise and glide, productively, away from the lecture-room.

I spend the whole year trying to negotiate between pushing them on the one hand and comforting/supporting them on the other. The truest self-esteem is the type one earns by gathering an accurate assessment of one’s abilities. Showing even moderate success at things that are authentically difficult (but significant) is better than getting hagiographic feedback on things that lack either challenge or relevance.

One of my goals, therefore, is to build up trust. I try to honor students’ desire to be respected and try to develop in them a stronger and stronger desire to be challenged. By the end of year, I admit, we are often somewhat off-balance. Plenty of the students are earning lower grades than they have earned in the past. The tasks, sometimes abstract, usually attempt to engage higher-order thinking skills and often demand significant application/recall of specific content knowledge (not merely a disembodied demonstration of what some refer to as “21st Century Skills”). This can engender frustration, which I – as a committed dialectician – don’t mind, but which for them can be disconcerting and disorienting. I hope my standards are high without being unfairly so. It is extremely important to me that I show them that I value the thinking I have been telling them I believe them to be capable of.

When we read Tobias Wolff’s memoir, This Boy’s Life, we consider a triangle of ideals: safety…success…integrity. All people want to be safe, American (and other) Dreamers strive for success, and we moral beings want to maintain our integrity along the way. Our class hearkens back to the Transcendentalists, to Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God, to Jay Gatsby. Can one person really achieve all three ideals? Is it a luxury to think we can?

Tobias wants to succeed with integrity. The narration does not ignore his moral shortcomings and constructs a motif about transformation. He wants to be a different kind of boy from the flawed one who is depicted in what he chooses as the opening scene. In that wonderfully written passage, eleven-year-old Toby and his mother, Rosemary, are fleeing Rosemary’s abusive boyfriend when they happen to witness the pathetic demise of a truck that has lost its brakes. It shrieks past them, horn blaring, and they later see it after the inevitable crash. His mother is overcome.

For the rest of the day she kept looking over at me, touching me, brushing back my hair. I saw that the time was right to make a play for souvenirs. I knew she had no money for them, and I had tried not to ask, but now that her guard was down I couldn’t help myself. When we pulled out of Grand Junction I owned a beaded Indian belt, beaded moccasins, and a bronze horse with a removable, tooled-leather saddle.

He keeps backsliding, sometimes in trivial ways and sometimes in devastating ones. The climax of the memoir comes when he decides he must escape Washington state and the wretched stepfather whom he sees as his main oppressor (although Tobias was flawed long before this man showed up in his life). An act of profound deception leads to greater safety and a sniff of success. Integrity has to wait.

Here’s the denouement to out American Literature course that began with the Transcendentalists. The students are asked to grade themselves on their integrity and write us (their teachers) a private essay explaining the rating. After an intro that mentions Emerson’s “sacred integrity” quotation and links it to Tobias’s struggle, we offer them the following prompt:

For a grade for this quarter, write a very casual journal to rate yourself as a thinker in this class. How deeply do you consider those questions you are asked in class? How much effort do you put into thinking about what you read and seeing if it is meaningful to your life? A lot, or just enough to get by…or maybe even less than that? The quirk: we will record YOUR grade and NOT grade this on our own. If you say you deserve 100%, it will help your course grade; if you honestly believe your thinking in this course is worth a 30%, it will hurt your grade. The question is: what do you have to say about your integrity?

This causes consternation, which I hope is the kind of consternation we should see more of. Many simultaneously love the fact that they control the grade and are oppressed by that last sentence, which puts it in the context of honesty and integrity. They tear at themselves a bit overnight and end up giving some of their best writing– and their best thinking – of the year. It has taken me many months to set this up, and I am now enjoying it. All of them remain nameless here, but all have imprinted themselves upon me, and I am grateful for them.

Many do give themselves that 100% score. Some of these admit, as one student did (complete with cross-out), “I probably deserve less than [100], way less in fact, but I really do need that grade.” I loved this comment, along with the rest of the journal, in which she was brutally honest about her work, in detail. On the one hand, she was correct about what she might have “deserved”; on the other, I was happy to record that perfect score, especially when reading her insightful reflection.

Some of these 100%s are well-deserved, all the more so when supported by heartfelt (sometimes heart-rending) commentary on their struggles with competition, parental and self-induced pressure, injustice. On the other hand, there was one wag who gave herself a perfect score and, drunk with her power to get any grade recorded, responded to my request for an explanation by expressing her (winking) preference “not to share my thought processes with foolish mortals.” Oh, well. It was bound to happen. Relinquishing control is not easy.

I remember many of them, years later. (I have been doing this since 2003.) The girl who traced her anger at being asked to confront her integrity, for a grade, when she at first felt that grades and integrity had nothing to do with each other. The boy who lamented being perceived as a clown. The one who revealed his intense emotion when he realized he was stereotyped because of his race.

One girl recalled her early-year fear of getting a bad grade in the class, and almost withdrew, but ended up staying; she regretted that standardized exams, schoolwork, two jobs, and family responsibilities made it enormously costly to “just sit and think like the Transcendentalists did.” One boy apologized for turning in the assignment late (although no late charge was applied to his self-grading, he wasn’t sure that would be so; this was the only piece he submitted late all year) because – and he pointed out the multiple ironies – it was not right to give himself a good grade for integrity if he couldn’t do it on time…and yet he was compelled to spend extra time on the commentary so as not to turn in subpar work, which he admitted doing on many other occasions.

There was a girl who admitted that until this year she had felt that reading was a punishment, while now she looked forward to discussion, to try out her ideas in the arena with her classmates’. There have been many who suggested that this was the hardest course they had ever taken. Dozens have revealed practices that no grade enforced upon them: writing down quotations from novels and essays in a personal journal to reflect on later, dog-earing pages, writing songs with our vocabulary words in them, seeking out extra articles about authors and themes that arise during class, continuing our classroom discussions around the lunch table, spending thirty minutes thinking in silence before starting to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Several have responded to my request for a handwritten single page of reflection with four single-spaced typed or handwritten pages–all for a grade they could have earned with nine seconds of “I prefer not to share my thought processes with foolish mortals.”

Every spring, a handful of kids give themselves a lower grade here than I had recorded on any other assignment all year. Two kids did this past year, three kids the year before, three the year before that, four the year before that. One year, two of these later made the University of Pennsylvania and Tufts their first-choice colleges; these are certainly kids who care about their grades. Counterintuitive, in a way, but it always has a logic to it – and a healthy one, given the courage that requires in the face of The Almighty GPA. (You might say self-flagellatory. But you’d be wrong, I think.) Their lowest grade was the only thing over which they had total control.

Upon reflection, I estimate that fully a quarter of the students score themselves lower than I would have scored them and another 50% are approximately on target. Does this mean they have suddenly developed integrity? Intrinsic motivation? I’m not sure, but I do think they have taken seriously the Transcendentalists’ charge about how we should live, if only for one day.

That objective of developing intrinsic motivation is so complex that it requires more than any one assignment and more than the year-long arc I have tried to design for them. I hope that at least these young people have experienced school in a new and newly productive way, having “wander’d off by themselves” for a little while.

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This entry was posted in Whitman (Walt), Wolff (Tobias) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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